Treasures saved from Taleban vandals

By Norman Hammond, The Times Archaeology Correspondent, May 16, 2005

Kabul, Afghanistan -- MANY of the treasures from the Kabul Museum, thought to have been looted or destroyed during Taleban rule in Afghanistan, have been found unharmed. Museum staff had carefully packed and hidden them before the Taleban takeover in 1996, and remained silent about their fate as speculation and rumour blossomed.

Among the spectacular objects recently displayed to Afghan and foreign officials are the Begram Ivories, a series of delicately carved panels and figures in Indian style, found in an ancient city at the foot of the Hindu Kush by French excavators before the Second World War. The site now lies under Bagram air base, expanded after the American invasion.

The Begram treasure also includes fragile coloured-glass vessels imported from the Mediterranean, and plaster roundels depicting Classical Greek deities: Afghanistan was a crossroads of cultures, and Begram's strategic position made it the key to trade across the Hindu Kush between the Oxus and Indus drainages. Other miraculous survivals include many of the Buddhist stucco figures from Hadda, a monastery complex near Jalalabad, and the painted clay sculptures of nearby Fondukistan.

Dr Fred Hiebert, a specialist in Central Asian archaeology with the National Geographic Society, was present when the resurrected treasures were unpacked a few weeks ago: in a lecture at Boston University in Massachusetts he explained how the Afghan "keyholders" of the Kabul Museum had packed the objects and hidden them.

The most famous collection, the "Golden Hoard of Bactria" from Tillya-tepe in the Oxus valley, dating to the first century AD and one of the largest finds of ancient goldwork ever found, was already known to lie in the vaults of the Presidential Palace in Kabul. It had been hidden when the Russians invaded a quarter of a century ago, and was found safely there last year: the locked vaults had defeated all efforts to open them.

It is the rest of the museum's display materials that have surprised the scholarly world by reappearing: persistent and credible rumours had placed many important pieces on the Pakistan antiquities market, especially in the bazaars of Peshawar, the city nearest the Khyber Pass and the Afghan frontier. Some were knowledgably stated to be on show in the homes of named Pakistani officials. All the rumours seem to have been wrong.

What was, sadly, destroyed was the museum archive, and the large sculptures that could not be easily moved from the building, which lies in a vulnerable suburb of Kabul. Harrowing tales of how Taleban officials smashed such notable sculptures as the Kushan statue from Surkh Kotal because it represented the human form, albeit only from the waist down and in long trousers, fuelled justifiable fears about the fate of the rest of the collections. There will be great relief at Dr Hiebert's revelations.